Situated in the verdant landscape along the border with Venezuela between the dramatic foothills of the Andes to the south and the plains of the Catatumbo and Zulia rivers to the north, the department of Norte de Santander has long been recognized as a strategic corridor to transport both people and goods, legal and illegal, from Colombia’s interior to the Caribbean coast and beyond.
Conversely, this highly coveted territory has also experienced every imaginable horror produced by the decades old Colombian civil war, having first been under the control of the leftist guerrilla movement, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), for some three decades until it was subsequently forced out by the ultra-right paramilitary outfit, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), in the late 1990s. With the massive nationwide paramilitary demobilization promoted during the first administration of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the sizeable AUC bloque that controlled Norte de Santander agreed to disband and return to civilian life towards the end of 2004, leading many to pray that the days of terror were finally over.
Luis Miguel Morelli Navia, then-governor of Norte de Santander, expressed his desire for peace during the process. “We hope that, with the exit of this group, tranquility will return and not a new wave of violence to our region.”
Sure enough, a new armed faction, the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), emerged from the ashes of the demobilized regional AUC cadres, and quickly became the unofficial power in the department by 2006, establishing its authority over all black market activity through a campaign of terror taken straight from the paramilitary handbook.
This shift was not a spontaneous, organic development, but rather the amalgamation of demobilized AUC fighters, those who never laid down their arms to begin with, and the more hardened elements of the regional criminal underclass. The regrouping of ‘demobilized’ fighters into illegal armed groups underscores a wider national trend following the dissolution of the AUC between 2003 and 2005.
With extensive prior experience in irregular warfare and the exportation of cocaine shipments, the Águilas Negras freed itself from the ideological constraints that circumscribed the AUC’s code of conduct and rapidly became one of the most powerful armed criminal organizations in Colombia. The newfound freedom of association and action coincided with a marked rise in human rights abuses and violence attributable to the group, as the Águilas Negras have recently expanded their operations into bordering states of Venezuela, a disturbing trend that has been met with official complaisance in Washington and Bogotá alike.
From Paramilitares to Paracos
Long a bastion of the 33rd Front of the FARC, the AUC leadership sought to ‘liberate’ Norte de Santander of the leftist movement and integrate local paramilitary outfits into the nascent organization in the late 1990s. This feat was promptly accomplished by the formidable Bloque Catatumbo, an AUC unit which emerged during this period under the command of Salvatore Mancuso.
Bloque Catatumbo first announced its arrival in the department through a campaign of intimidation and murder. For years, AUC leader Carlos Castaño had accused the people of Norte de Santander of aiding the guerrillas of FARC, accusations which soon culminated into atrocities such as the 1999 La Gabarra massacre in Tibú, where the AUC unit killed some 20 civilians in particularly merciless fashion.
Unfortunately, La Gabarra was only a mild indication of what was to come in Norte de Santander, as over the next five years there were 5,200 violent deaths and 200 disappearances in the northeastern department. Meanwhile, 300 bodies were also recovered from mass graves, and an astounding 40,000 peasants were forced to relocate due to the paramilitary activity.
Cúcuta, the capital of the department, became the second most dangerous city in Colombia during this five-year period.
Thus, when it was announced in late 2004 at a summit between government representatives and top AUC commanders (Mancuso included) in Santa Fe de Ralito, that several of the most prominent AUC bloques would demobilize under the guidelines of the Peace and Justice Law, many residents of Norte de Santander were cautiously optimistic. The 33rd Front of the FARC continued to operate in the fringes of the department, as did the Bloque Norte of the AUC, a fearsome outfit of considerable numbers and strength that controlled all of the border territory north of the Catatumbo to the Caribbean coast.
Bloque Norte was commanded by Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, more commonly known as Jorge-40, and operated in multiple departments in the northeast, earning a reputation for extreme violence, notably against the Wayuu and Wiwa indigenous tribes in La Guajira department. The armed group eventually demobilized in early 2006, and Jorge-40 was remanded to the custody of the state under the conditions of his surrender and cooperation, finding himself in the company of other retired AUC leaders such as Mancuso (both of whom would eventually be extradited to the United States in 2008 for violating the terms of their demobilization).
However, the appearance of the Águilas Negras coincided with the dissolution of Bloque Norte and shortly thereafter rumors started that whilst incarcerated, Jorge-40 had attained the leadership position of the new outfit and was directing them from behind bars.
In the immediate aftermath of the demobilizations, a whole proliferation of armed groups emerged, calling themselves ‘Eagles’, but of various different colors: Golden Eagles, Blue Eagles, Red Eagles, etc. This rainbow of illegal armed factions dissipated after a brief spell and eventually they all adopted the same name, Águilas Negras, as well as common methods of operations and rules of conduct.
Upon appearing in a zone or municipality for the first time, the Águilas Negras would announce their arrival by circulating pamphlets which stated an impending ‘social cleansing’ campaign, often accompanied by a blacklist detailing who was in violation of its strict code of conduct (i.e. drug dealers, thieves, muggers, prostitutes, homosexuals, drug addicts, etc.) and what would happen to them if they did not vacate the area after 72 hours.
For instance, when the Águilas Negras first arrived in Cúcuta, the outfit imposed such strict conditions on the people of the city that men with long hair, people with tattoos and/or piercings, or even anyone unfortunate enough to caught in the street after 10 p.m. was liable to incur the wrath of the group, often with fatal consequences.
Although the Águilas Negras possessed the zeal of the Saudi mutaween in imposing and enforcing this rigid social code on the people of Norte de Santander and beyond, its motives were neither religious nor security minded. The primary objective of the group was to regain complete control of all black market activity in the areas where the AUC used to operate, particularly the local drug market, prostitution, the pimpinero and weapons trade, and of course the incredibly lucrative drug smuggling routes.
A long-standing practice in the departments bordering oil-rich Venezuela, pimpineros are Colombians who smuggle considerable cheaper gasoline back to their country and sell it at below market prices. Daily gasoline sales in the local underground economy are estimated to amount to roughly 100 million Colombian pesos ($53,300 USD). However, since arriving in Norte de Santander, the Águilas Negras have imposed a ten percent ‘tax’ on the pimpinero industry, ensuring that the outfit receives a percentage of every illicit transaction that occurs in its territory.
Most attractive to the group is the industry that has seduced countless other factions and individuals from all walks of Colombian society over the past forty years: the drug trade.
Under Salvatore Mancuso, the Bloque Catatumbo established a pipeline from coca producing regions under its control in El Tarra, Teorama, La Gabarra, and Tibú, to localities such as Ureña, Capacho, and San Antonio de Táchira in Venezuela, which finally led to the Caribbean Antilles and onwards to profitable North American and European markets.
The weekly cocaine trade in this particular region is estimated to be worth around $8 million USD.
Similar to the AUC before them, the control of the El Catatumbo-Cúcuta-Venezuela corridor is of paramount importance to the Águilas Negras. Unlike its paramilitary antecedent, ideology and association are less of an obstacle than an antiquated system of classification to the new power in Norte de Santander. The Águilas Negras don’t have a problem making deals with FARC or other guerrilla groups as long as they are lucrative to the outfit.
Hence the new label paracos. The tactics and methods used are those honed by AUC paramilitaries over the past two decades, while the primary reason for existing is to control as much of the narcotics trade as possible.
Business has been good for the outfit, judging by the expansion of the Águilas Negras in its first year alone. In 2007, the Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación, a governmental organization committed to overseeing the demobilization process, identified some 22 groups operating in 200 municipalities in 22 different departments across Colombia. This is perhaps an underestimate, as the official body has information pertaining to 34 different groups of Águilas Negras in operation nationwide.
Meanwhile, this development has been marked with an increase in violence in places where the Águilas Negras operate. For example, between January and September of 2006, municipal authorities recorded 259 violent deaths in Cúcuta, a figure that had increased to 327 in the same time period of 2007.
Likewise, the Águilas Negras has continued in the paramilitary tradition of silencing any potential critics. The group has proved to be particularly disdainful of human rights activists and NGOs working with internally displaced peoples and those who have experienced repression at the hands of irregular armed groups.
Between June 2008 and October 2010, the Águilas Negras threatened activists at six prominent unions and NGOs in Barrancabermeja, labeling them ‘auxiliaries’ of leftist guerrillas. They also issued similar death threats against Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a Bogota based NGO primarily composed of former leftist rebels from ELN, and other civil society groups from the capital, calling the employees ‘civil guerrillas’, and ‘couriers for the guerrillas’.
The group has even targeted the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), repeatedly, along with dozens other NGOs working with internally displaced Colombians, warning them that their operatives “will be killed without a trace” and that, “the moment has come to terminate all of you. Consider yourselves dead.”
These threats have not been made in vain, as forty leaders of groups representing internally displaced peoples have been killed in Colombia since 2005. One of these was Jair Murillo, a WOLA activist working in Buenaventura.
Contagion: No Longer Just a Colombian Problem
With most coverage focusing on the destabilizing effects of FARC in neighboring countries, the growing presence of the Águilas Negras in Venezuelan border states such as Zulia, Táchira, and Apure has largely gone unreported in the Western media.
First appearing on the radar in urban centers in Táchira in 2008, the Águilas Negras promised a ‘social cleansing’ along lines similar to the campaigns it had waged in Colombian border cities such as Cúcuta a couple of years earlier.
Whereas at first the threatened parties did actually pay heed to these warnings and vacate the municipalities, albeit temporarily, more recently the Venezuelan authorities have discovered more than just menacing graffiti or pamphlets bearing the signature of the Águilas Negras.
In June 2009, a 22 year-old man, José Rafael Chacón Sánchez, was shot several times and killed in his hometown of San Cristóbal by two men on a motorcycle that were known to be members of the Colombian group.
The threat posed by this violent incursion into Venezuelan territory has grown to the extent over the past year that even the country’s leadership have been forced to address it.
“Águilas Negras are here, operating in the states of Táchira and in Apure,” stated Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez this past September. “We will rigorously combat all of these groups.”
Since this public acknowledgement from the nation’s outspoken leader, Venezuelan security forces have captured numerous accused members of the Águilas Negras, who were apparently trying to expand its operations within Venezuela.
On November 25th, 2010, multiple Venezuelan security agencies arrested Carlos Cuello, a Colombian who had been sought on charges of death threats, public extortion, and homicide amongst others, in Táchira.
The following month, agents from SEBIN (Bolivarian National Intelligence Services) apprehended two Venezuelan nationals and a Colombian in Táchira and found them in possession of military uniforms, two hand grenades, a firearm with defaced serial numbers, paramilitary pamphlets, twenty-six firearm cartridges of varying calibers, and two motorcycles.
Meanwhile, CICPC (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas) operatives recently arrested four Colombians and one Venezuelan on March 17th, in the border town and found them in possession of five firearms supposedly used in criminal acts in the vicinity, 25 million fake Colombian pesos ($13 350), two cars, and two motorcycles as well. These men are all said to have been members of the Águilas Negras.
Most recently, CICPC again apprehended three presumed members of the gang in San Antonio this past March 29th, all Venezuelan nationals, who were in possession of two firearms, a fragmentation grenade, and large quantities of street drugs. These individuals are believed to be responsible for the recent murder of a local teenager.
As these arrests indicate, not only are the Águilas Negras aggressively trying to push into Venezuelan territory, but they are also finding willing accomplices and recruits amongst the local populations. The established presence of paracos in Táchira has many powerful people very worried.
In 2009, a ruling party representative from Táchira, Julio García Jarpa, accused the governor in his home state of allowing the Colombian group free passage in order to repress community activists who support the Bolivarian revolution, and to destabilize the region just before a national referendum on abolishing presidential term limits was to be held that February.
“Governor César Pérez Vivas,” asserted the representative, “in alliance with the Colombian right and paramilitaries, has permitted the entry and formation of a particular group, the Águilas Negras, with the intention to create chaos and disrupt the official process.”
Given the tumultuous history of the past decade, the current Venezuelan government is justifiably wary of any Colombian irregulars operating within its national territory.
Disgraced former director of the Colombian intelligence services DAS, Jorge Noguera, who is currently serving a prison sentence for his collaboration with paramilitary groups during his tenure (also known as the parapolítica scandal), reportedly met on a variety of occasions with ex-AUC leader Jorge-40’s brother and cousin, Álvaro Pupo and Luis José Pupo, in 2004.
According to the DAS visitor books, there were three meetings: one in April, and two more in August of that year.
His former director of information at DAS, Rafael García, who was also imprisoned for his role in the scandal, asserts that Noguera was working with Jorge-40 to destabilize the Chávez government by targeting not only the Venezuelan president, but also his vice president, attorney general, and interior minister as well.
Only one month after the first apparent meeting between Jorge-40’s relatives and Jorge Noguera, Venezuelan security services detained between 80 and 100 Colombian paramilitaries on a bus just outside of Caracas in El Hatillo, where they had been staying at a farm owned by a prominent Cuban exile, Roberto Alonso. Reputedly, they had been tasked with the assignment of attacking major government installations in the hopes of destabilizing or overthrowing the sitting government.
In November of that year, public prosecutor Danilo Anderson, who was investigating 300 people for their involvement in the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, was killed after C-4 explosives that were planted in his car were detonated. In the subsequent investigation, the primary witness to come forward after being arrested was a former AUC member named Giovanni José Vásquez de Armas, who claimed that he smuggled the explosives into the country from Panama and had collaborated with law enforcement officials, ex-generals, and even bankers and journalists from Venezuela to carry out the assassination.
It is important to note that the credibility of Vásquez’s testimony subsequently fell into serious question in the ensuing legal prosecutions against those accused of orchestrating the Anderson murder due to the former paramilitary’s past history of fraud and incarceration in Colombia.
Despite this, it is difficult to ignore that Colombian irregular forces were present within Venezuela at such a volatile time, as their apparent intentions were acts of sabotage against the state, motives that were corroborated by testimony from those within the Colombian intelligence community.
These facts give credence to the accusation that the Colombian right has sought to destabilize the Chávez government in the past, thus giving the Venezuelan president and those in his party ample cause for concern in the present, especially when Colombian paracos that are the successors to the AUC appear in strategically vital regions of the country.
Even if this group does not intend to subvert the state or destabilize the country, very few Venezuelans, especially those in power, wish to see Táchira or Apure turn into another Norte de Santander.
Alarmingly, the official Colombian and American reaction to the reincarnation of demobilized paramilitary bloques into heavily armed organized criminal syndicates, chief among them the Águilas Negras, has been considerably passive considering the threat that these groups pose not only to the citizens of Colombia, but Venezuela as well.
While ex-President Uribe openly called for Colombian security services to detain any and all members of the fledgling paracos outfit in late 2006, the response and continued focus of the bilateral military strategy under the aegis of Plan Colombia has been to target leftist guerrilla movements, particularly the FARC.
It appears that neither the Colombian nor the U.S. government wishes to publicly refute the narrative of irrevocable progress that they have been collectively disseminating to the outside world over the past decade. To do so would force them to recalibrate their strategy and commit to tackling the root causes of the ongoing internal conflict, namely pervasive social inequity and the massive demand for illegal narcotics from the developed world, objectives that are significantly more difficult to address than simply defeating the Colombian armed left.
As a result, the protection of human rights will continue to take a back seat to more substantial American interests in Colombia, which are both economic and those relevant to regional security.
The U.S. Department of State is bound by domestic law to condition foreign aid on the protection of human rights defenders in recipient countries, yet it evidently overlooks this consideration when evaluating its relationship with Colombia.
“The (US) embassy and the Department of State know the threats,” claims WOLA director Gimena Sánchez, “And they continue to affirm the advance of human rights in Colombia.”
This official passivity to the spread of groups such the Águilas Negras has in turn led to the emergence of other paracos outfits in regions of the country that were once dominated by the AUC. Many of these groups, such as Los Rastrojos in the Cauca and Valle del Cauca departments, Nueva Generación in Nariño, Los Urabeños in Antioquia, and Los Paisas in Córdoba, are said to either collaborate or work directly for the Águilas Negras.
The fact that these groups primarily operate in departments that are located near the Colombian border is also worrisome, given the natural ability of groups comprised of ex-combatants to establish criminal enterprises in decentralized, lawless regions.
It is time for the Colombian authorities to acknowledge the failure of the paramilitary demobilization and to author a new strategy to prevent the spread of paracos, and to also protect those living within these troubled regions before the situation deteriorates any further. It would be a grave error to avoid addressing this looming crisis in order to preserve a disingenuous image the Colombian government has created for itself, one primarily for foreign consumption at that.
While recent progress is undeniable, so are the blowback effects from past strategies gone awry, and continuing to pretend that paramilitarism is a thing of the past will become increasingly difficult as long as groups such as the Águilas Negras continue to operate with impunity in places like Norte de Santander and beyond.
C.L. Smith is an Inter-American affairs analyst who is currently teaching at a Venezuelan university.
This article was originally published on UpsideDownWorld.org.